Montenegrin crew member gets over 5 years in cocaine bust

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A cargo ship crew member has been sentenced to five years and 10 months in federal prison in connection with nearly 40,000 pounds, or almost 18,000 kilograms, of cocaine seized when the vessel arrived in Philadelphia almost two years ago.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that 28-year-old ship’s engineer Vladimir Penda of Montenegro was one of eight men from the MSC Gayane to plead guilty after the June 2019 seizure federal authorities called one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history.

Defense attorney Dennis Boyle described his client as a minor player who was pressured by transnational gangs into participating in a global drug-trafficking conspiracy stretching from southern Europe to South America and eventually Philadelphia.

“These organizations are large, they’re powerful, they’re dangerous,” he told U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III on Tuesday. “People are not free to simply walk away when they are asked to do something.”

Penda, unlike many of the other men charged, was recruited while the Gayane was at sea to help load the cocaine, and fearing retribution and with nowhere to flee, had no choice but to agree, Boyle said.

Prosecutors pointed out that Penda he had accepted a deal to be paid about $4,800. Penda “had a choice, and he chose the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of drugs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerome Maiatico said.

Penda said he was eager to serve whatever sentence was imposed and then return to his family and become a productive citizen again.

“Honor is something that is so hard to regain when it gets lost,” he said through a Serbian interpreter. “But in spite of everything, I believe in God and I believe in second chances.”

Penda pleaded guilty almost a year ago to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine on a vessel under U.S. jurisdiction. Seven other crew members have also pleaded guilty to drug trafficking conspiracy charges and await sentencing.

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